Duke's Nolan Smith: Is There Anyone Playing Better?

Mike KlineAnalyst IJanuary 6, 2011

Nolan Smith is averaging 26 points per game over the last five games.
Nolan Smith is averaging 26 points per game over the last five games.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It is hard to imagine anyone in all of college basketball who is playing better than Duke's Nolan Smith.

There may be some who are scoring a bit more or, on the season, averaging more points per game, but as far as his overall game goes, Smith is as hot as they come right now.

Ohio State's Jared Sullinger is thought by a few to be the best freshman, if not the best overall player, in the country and it would be hard to argue against the No. 2 team's stud.

BYU's Jimmer Ferdette also has garnered a lot of attention for his scoring prowess.

Still Smith has turned his game up several notches following the injury to Kyrie Irving in early December. Last year Smith averaged just over 17 points, almost three rebounds and three assists per game as part of Duke's Big Three of Smith, Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer.

This season, prior to Irving's injury, Smith was plugging along at pretty much the same rate: 16-17 points per game.

When Irving went down he was then thrust into the "point guard" role, much like Scheyer had been two seasons before. Initially, or at least for one game, Smith looked content to just be a distributor as he picked up 10 assists but only scored two points and hit no shots from the floor.

Duke's coaching staff quickly addressed this urging Smith to not lose his scorers mentality. Since then he has only averaged 26.2 points in five games and hasn't scored fewer than 22 points in any of those games.

On the season his assist average is up to just over five per game and he has nearly doubled the amount of rebounds per game, grabbing 4.7 per contest.

While it is clearly way too early to anoint any one player as a favorite for the player of the year, and while Smith may remain a long shot for the award for several reasons, it is hard to overlook what he is doing.

Should Irving come back, you would see Smith take only a small step back, if he does so at all. If you are a Duke opponent the scary thing is you still have to worry about Kyle Singer, who is averaging 17.5 points per game, as well as upstart Andre Dawkins who is averaging 12.2 points and shooting 53 percent from three-point range.

Combine that with the improved play of Miles and Mason Plumlee, and the versatility of Seth Curry and it is hard to see the Blue Devils losing many games.

Still, right now as good as Duke is, one of the major reasons is Smith and if his current torrent continues it could be lights out in the ACC race.